Our campervan passes by way of Manicaragua, a tobacco-growing (as soon as sugar-growing) city within the centre of Cuba. Manicaragua’s leaves are used for the dense core of Habanos cigars; premium leaves from Pinar del Río kind the outer layer.
It is a true backwater however within the 1940s and 1950s, earlier than the underside dropped out of sugar, it had cash: there are cinemas and rundown hospitals. We go by the pitched tin roofs of tobacco-drying homes, and see staff in excessive straw campesino hats hoeing the crimson earth.
Cuba map
One farm is so picturesque I really feel an urge to go in. So we do – and have the sort of heartwarming interlude you’d by no means have on an organised tour. The farmer, Mayorilio Lopez, likes it that we’ve barged in on his day. Born in 1929, he was within the revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos’ column within the Escambray mountains. He retains a rolled puro – a pure Cuban cigar – in his breast pocket however to not smoke; he likes to chew on it whereas he thinks. His son lives in … what’s that place all of the Cubans go? Miami, I counsel. Sure, there. He forgets issues now. After we go away he turns to me and locations his hand on his coronary heart.
“Have a fantastic life,” he says. “Combat in your life. Attempt to come again earlier than I die.”
I’m exploring the island’s countryside in a Fiat Ducato 3000 van with my Cuban pal Alejo, due to a brand new authorities initiative beneath which campervans will be rented for the primary time (nicely, since a failed enterprise within the 1990s). We decide up the van in Havana and over seven days drive 800 miles on a spherical journey to Trinidad, the 500-year-old honeypot on the south coast, taking in Santa Clara – a vacation spot for worshippers on the mausoleum of Che Guevara – and some lesser-visited gems.

Lydia Bell’s rented Fiat Ducato camper. {Photograph}: Rama Knight
The camper is an unwieldy beast: it’s a bit like driving round in an Ikea wardrobe however we get used to it. There’s a small kitchenette and fridge, a desk that folds out right into a double mattress and two cavities for as much as 4 further individuals. It might be a comfy squeeze for 4 adults and a toddler – however it could work brilliantly for a household.
At 20 tenting spots across the western and central a part of the island – from Viñales within the west to Cayo Coco on the central northern coast (however not additional east, but) – campers can hook as much as electrical energy to run aircon (a battery, received’t final all night time) and to eradicate waste. Another is to ask good individuals alongside the best way (or pay them somewhat) to make use of their energy and toilet. In essence, nobody is tied to any specific place, and wild tenting is allowed, although life is less complicated utilizing the official websites (we’re given a map).
Having the camper means we get to see much less apparent issues than we might on a bus tour. Plus, the $180-a-day price interprets to the equal of Cuba’s exorbitant automobile rent and a bog-standard resort.

The Caburni waterfall in Topes de Collantes park. {Photograph}: Craig Lovell/Eagle Visions/Alamy
One such place is Embalse Hanabanilla, a glimmering reservoir within the northern foothills of the Sierra Escambray, Embalse Hanabanilla, which was created by flooding a valley within the 1960s. It’s not on anybody’s must-see checklist – except you’re a hydro-electricity geek or a freshwater fishing fan with a penchant for largemouth bass (it has the world’s largest inhabitants), but it surely’s fairly, with slopes carpeted with thick forest and royal palms alongside the water’s edge.
Close to the Hanabanilla resort – a hulk of pure, Soviet-style ugliness, with a pool that juts into the lake – we discover a boatman to take us out round that lake. We climb up by way of tropical rainforest to a lookout the place we gaze, with the vultures, upon its magnificence.
There isn’t any one on the water other than the ludicrously well-built Cuban canoeing crew, who look bionic. The boatman takes us to a clapboard cottage-cum-restaurant on a tiny island, the place we eat a country meal of smoked pork and salad surrounded by cavorting puppies. It’s Sunday, and once we get again to our camper, we discover a bunch of locals having a car-washing social gathering. They’ve pushed their Ladas into the water and are cleansing them, swimming, and consuming Cristal, the native beer.
We spend the night time in Topes de Collantes, the village of the eponymous nationwide park. There’s no charging level, so we cease on the outskirts, chat up some locals, eat some pasta we ready on the electrical hob earlier, and crack open the Havana Membership. The air is contemporary – you don’t want aircon right here.

A paladar restaurant in Trinidad. {Photograph}: Buena Vista Photographs/Getty Photographs
The subsequent morning, again on the highway, we go modest memorials to troopers of the civil battle: for 5 years following the 1959 revolution, US-backed counter-revolutionaries launched guerrilla strikes, which resulted in fairly a number of deaths.
The sierra and Gran Parque Pure Topes de Collantes, the place you’ll discover the Caburní waterfall, are a preferred day journey from Trinidad, although most individuals head to Parque el Cubano, which borders Trinidad. However having the van means we will go to the Nengoa waterfall in Guanayara park. The camper doesn’t make it up one specific highway – it’s not a four-wheel drive – so we stroll the previous few miles. Our route takes us by way of woods of mamey, bitter orange, espresso and banana, shaded by avocado and the royal palm, previous ferns and flittering butterflies. Climate-beaten limestone cliffs rise as much as a bell-shaped opening of birch bushes the place the waterfall thunders. We’re encircled. We’re alone.
Heading in direction of Trinidad, we cease at a country paladar (personal restaurant) for an early dinner. El Manantial has a veranda stuffed with hammocks, ferns and goatskin chairs. We eat tasty tilapia from its pond after which it’s a drive downhill, glimpsing the hazy, late-afternoon blue wash of the horizon and the unspoiled forested slopes of the southern foothills.
Trinidad is among the most touristy city in Cuba. However justifiably so: nowhere else showcases Cuban historical past so gorgeously – from the final 500 years to a thriving (within the case of this city, anyway) current. Casa particulares (personal leases that predate Airbnb however are virtually all now on its web site) abound, in addition to paladares, arts and craft stalls, dance colleges and all the pieces in between.
I’ve been to Trinidad many instances, so I ask Alian Rojas, a information I do know, to take us someplace totally different. We go to a non-public, magnificent colonial home, was a temple to Yemayá, the Afro-Cuban goddess of the ocean. There’s a pumpkin within the window (pumpkins are sacred to Yemayá, and to her followers, it is a no-go meals) and the Babalaô-orisha, or excessive priest, is rocking in a chair on the patio, wearing crisp white linen trousers and guayabera shirt and nursing a cigar. He’s surrounded by crowing cocks and fats white doves and is prepping for the initiation into Santería (the dominant Afro-Cuban faith, which hails from the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria) of a girl who’s mendacity down in a room subsequent door. However, being Cuban, he finds time to talk, regardless. His premonition-filled desires and religious visions began on the age of 13. His father, an atheist communist, initially thought he was mad. Various years later, lastly satisfied of his son’s authenticity, he wrote to the state, requesting to show the household home right into a temple. The powers that be acquiesced.

Classic American vehicles are nonetheless a standard sight on the streets of Cuba. {Photograph}: Zodebala/Getty Photographs
When the warmth of the day softens, we trundle down within the campervan to the lengthy, scrubby finger of land that’s Península de Ancón, 10km south of Trinidad, the place there’s probably the greatest seashores on Cuba’s south coast. We lounge fortunately within the aquamarine waters of Playa Ancón and loll beneath fats palms till the solar dips behind the horizon. This time, as an alternative of casting round for the final of the maquinas, the rumbling basic vehicles heading again into Trinidad on the finish of the day, we’re free to remain until the sky turns inky blue-black, consuming our personal chilly beer provides.
Again in Trinidad, we park on a quiet avenue of red-tiled rooftops and shuttered porticoes, the place we’ll sleep later. We are able to’t enter the city centre: it’s pedestrianised, one thing which lends it an unhurried really feel. The large, uneven cobblestones on this Unesco-protected city imply there’s no dashing, even if you wish to. On the slim streets, the camper feels a lumbering eyesore. However we’re grateful: right here, we’re simply one other bunch of vacationers within the throng, although it’s been candy to see some offbeat and sudden issues alongside the best way.
• The campervan was offered by Cuba Personal Journey, which has leases for $180 a day, when renting for every week (electronic mail by way of the web site for particulars). Vans are for no less than two adults and a most of 5 adults and one little one. Diesel, at $1.25 a litre, is just not included. One passenger should be over 25

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